Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Hobbit Has 99 Problems...

... and HFR is Just One (or 48).

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey arrives on screens pre-empted by hype it could not possibly live up to. And yes the film itself is an unwieldy monstrosity - the film's moderately enjoyable last hour barely makes up for the preceding levels of insufferable lore, exposition and general lack of focus. But this isn't a review of that stuff. Instead, I want to discuss the film's tech specs, and why for a variety of reasons The Hobbit emerges as one of the least cinematic and downright ugly films I've seen in recent times (although, unlike The Expendables 2, the cameras were at least in focus).

First, let us consider the much-hyped 48 FPS delivery. I cannot deny it - it's an incredibly disorientating experience from the moment the Warner Bros. and New Line logos appear on screen. We are being invited to temporarily abandon a cinematic look we've spent our lifetimes with, and it's not an easy ask. For the first hour, I was completely unable to get sucked into the film - the startlingly brisk movement was just that weird. I never really fully acclimatised to it - there was regularly something that looked not quite right to pull me right back out. Furthermore, the decision to display in horrible old 3D (which does have more depth than usual here, but is still pretty much aesthetically useless) alongside the HFR significantly neuters the benefits of smoother movement. A rapid camera maneuver may benefit from having twenty four extra frames of breathing space, but it matters little when the viewer's eyes are struggling to focus on the three-dimensional image anyway.

Still, oddly enough I think there's promise in the tech, just not in a fantasy as artificial as The Hobbit. There's a stunning helicopter pan near the start of the film when a character stands atop a real New Zealand mountain - for a brief moment, I could see the potential of a higher frame rate. I temporarily daydreamed about the possibilities of the BBC documentary crews getting their hands on the tech - HFR will lead to some beautiful wildlife documentaries, where attempts to capture reality, warts & all, are truly warranted. But it was but a brief thought, and in its current state the technology is too distracting and rough around the edges to truly 'wow'. 24 FPS is undoubtedly safe and sound for the time being.

But HFR - a very rough draft of a vaguely promising technology though it may be - cannot be held fully responsible for the film's other crippling aesthetic flaws. Full disclosure: I watched this film in Cineworld's Dublin new 'IMAX' screen, which is being heralded by the multiplex like the second coming of Christ. But this is misleading: it's just inferior 'digital IMAX' aka LIMAX. As ever, the aspect ratio is a dead giveaway that this is not the 70mm format that has benefited the likes of The Dark Knight. It's a slightly better digital setup than your usual multiplex screen, yes, but it is far from the overwhelming experience true IMAX offers. This problem has plagued international cinemagoers for years but is a cheeky new trick to further inflate ticket prices in what was already Dublin's most expensive cinema. An IMAX rep at the start of the film promised us a completely immersive experience. An Unexpected Journey is anything but. Anyway, some of the issues I am going to describe may have been exaggerated by the presentation (IMAX regrade and tinker with films for their projectors), but this film without doubt has some major visual issues that would be obvious on any digital projector. Although I probably won't have the enthusiasm to sit through a 2D screening of the film to prove that - the film truly is a slog. Comments are more than welcome below for anyone who would like to counter accusations made here with evidence from different format screening. Maybe someone will even be lucky enough to see a print of it!

The ultra-clarity of the film's projection - further assisted by HFR - unfortunately only serves to emphasise the film's fakeness. In trying to heighten his film's sense of reality, Jackson has only drawn attention to its inherent artificiality. Accusations of the film looking like a TV soap opera have been tossed around since the 48 FPS debut earlier in the year, and they're not far off the mark. The film was shot on the RED Epic (dozens of them in this case) - an extremely capable camera in the right hands (if not quite as beloved as the Arri Alexa), as proven by the likes of Holy Motors or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Alas, the film's grading has failed to adequately mask or even effectively utilise the digital qualities of the camera. This is a weird criticism, but the film is way too clean - there is no added film grain, for example, and the colour correction just doesn't look cinematic in the way we're used to. I'm not against progress, but this is a step in the wrong direction, absolutely shattering our suspended disbelief through clarity that constantly reminds us that we're watching an illusion of sets, props and actors. Some scenes - such as the Hobbiton exteriors - actually seem bizarrely overexposed, and the colour correcting team have done a very odd job indeed in some pivotal sequences.

Furthermore, the film is riddled with unconvincing CGI. I, for the record, loved how the Lord of the Rings looked - still the perfect example of how a marriage between practical SFX work and computer imagery could be harmonious and effective. Inevitably - and partly down to the danger of fan invasions of location shoots - The Hobbit has instead been shot predominantly on green screen, with tonnes more computer effects than its predecessor (or, narratively speaking, successor). The result is a film that looks much, much uglier than its older brothers.

Almost everything is CGIed, and only occasionally impressively (Gollum has received a welcome technical upgrade, and there's a spectacular sequence on a stormy mountain later on). This includes animals, rings, backgrounds, creatures, antagonists, action sequences, cities (come back miniatures, all is forgiven!), environmental effects etc... The WETA artists and render farms weren't up to the job, and further exasperated by the issues mentioned above, the effects are constantly distracting. There's only a handful of shots that don't suffer from some distinctly CG element screwing it up - even stuff that looked perfectly fine in LotR. Rivendell, for example, looks horrid here. A rabbit-drawn sled is just ridiculous. Action sequences are downright cartoonish, especially a ludicrous escape sequence through an orc layer (or are they goblins? I lost track amidst all the fantasy bullshit and lore). What happened to the WETA that crafted such a beautiful and compelling Middle Earth a decade ago? Their fingerprints are absent here, and you'd be entirely forgiven for assuming that George Lucas had his wicked way with the images in the post-production house. Even the gorgeous New Zealand landscapes are under-utilised - only a few jogs across rolling hills remind us of the country's natural beauty, so well captured a decade ago. An Unexpected Journey is a reminder that we are long overdue a resurgence of practical effects in a digital world. At least Chris Nolan keeps getting the balance right, and the Dubai tower climb of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol offers further evidence that a real stunt can impress far more than a CGI one can.

The content of the film is a disappointment, but technically The Hobbit is heartbreaking - embracing technology that is insufficient for the job at hand. Yes, HFR shows potential, and is undoubtedly something you haven't seen before. But this is an unwelcome introduction. Elsewhere, the film commits unforgivable crimes against the cinematic aesthetic, and the result is the least cinematic blockbuster I've ever sat through. Digital cinema is not a bad thing when handled correctly. We as cinephiles cannot and should not stand in the way of genuine progress if there are benefits to the artform - we can mourn the death of 35mm and 70mm, but must acknowledge the practical and artistic benefits of ever improving digital cameras and projection. But if The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is progress, then someone needs to get back to the drawing board.

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